Where Did A Life To Kill Come From? ... Why Writing Is An Act Of Faith
You never quite know where your next good idea for a book or screenplay is going to come from. You can sweat at the desk all you like writing lists of ideas, but it's the one that strikes you unawares that becomes the one that takes light. Try and force things (as we often do in television writing) and out comes something stale, flat and forgettable.
Before I started writing A Life To Kill I had written outlines for three or four Jenny Cooper novels. They would all have worked on one level, but they weren't setting me alight. I showed them to my publisher, Maria, and I think she felt the same way. She advised me to go off and think about a stand-alone idea that Jenny Cooper could be part of. Somewhere during our conversation I remember her suggesting that perhaps only part of the story should be told from Jenny's point of view.
Maria's steer bamboozled me a bit - my previous six books had all been told from Jenny's point of view - but I let it sit there in my brain while I waited for an idea to strike.
I did what writers do: went to my desk and started trying to force ideas out onto the page. Nothing worked. I worried briefly that the well had run dry, went through one of my not infrequent phases of wondering whether there was any job for a lawyer who hasn't worn his wig in earnest for 20 years, then a little bit of luck, fate or whatever you like to call it came along.
I describe how the inspiration for A Life To Kill came about in the author's note at the end of the book.
Here's what it says:
A little under two years ago I was due to give a talk at the Bookmark bookshop in Spalding, Lincolnshire, a town on the far side of the country from my home. It involved such a long drive for a brief appearance (and I was to be only one of three writers speaking that evening) that I almost cancelled, but thankfully I stuck to my maxim of ‘turn no opportunity down’.
When I arrived, late and saucer-eyed from many hours at the wheel, the owner of the shop handed me a note. It had been left for me by one of her customers - someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. His name is Frank Ledwidge. In the academic year 1989-90 we had been at Bar School together in Gray’s Inn, London. I remembered Frank as a friendly and irreverent young man with the stubborn and tenacious streak that all good advocates require. After being called to the Bar he went to practice law in Liverpool, and that is where I assumed he had spent his career.
Frank’s note, apologising for not being able to attend my talk, included his phone number and an invitation to get in touch. I called him the very next day, eager for two decades’ worth of news. It turned out that like me, he had dabbled in the law for a few years before wondering if there was more to life. Unlike me, he had been a member of the Naval Reserve and in the late 1990s spent some time as an observer during the conflict in the Balkans. The experience seemed to light a spark in him. He turned his part-time military career into a permanent one. Soon afterwards, he became part of the futile and evidently often comical effort to detect weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Following Iraq, Frank was deployed to Afghanistan where he ended up in charge of justice in the British occupied territory of Helmand.
To say that his experiences left him less than impressed with the effects of British and US foreign policy would be an under-statement. He emerged disillusioned and critical of politicians and military leaders who failed to understand the complex consequences of their actions on the ground. It would have helped, for example, to understand that many Afghans still bear the British a deep grudge dating back to our previous occupation of that country in the late nineteenth century. To such people, all foreign occupiers, whether British, American or Russian, are one and the same. Frank has written three seminal works of non-fiction based on his personal knowledge and experience, each of which I recommend. They are: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; Punching Above Our Weight: How Inter-Service Rivalry Has Damaged the British Armed Forces, and Investment in Blood.
Frank also introduced me to a young man called Ed, who had recently returned from commanding a platoon in Helmand. Ed gave me a very detailed and candid account of day to day life in a forward command post. Much of what he told me was revelatory. What struck me most powerfully was just how young our front-line soldiers are. Our wars are being fought by teenagers and very young men, who, while they may be technically described as volunteers, are in reality just ordinary lads often from the most challenging and deprived of backgrounds. The officers who command them can be as young as twenty-one.
After a few conversations with Frank and Ed, I knew I had the subject for the next Jenny Cooper novel. Huge thanks to both of them and whoever or whatever brought us together.
I so nearly didn't go to Spalding that night. Frank's note would have remained unclaimed under the counter and there would have been no book and no chance of discovering the characters that sprung from my conversations with both Frank and Ed while researching with them.
That's how it seems to go in writing. You never know what's going to turn up and each new day is an act of faith that you'll have story to tell and the words to tell it with. The book comes out this week - now to have a little faith that readers will like it.
If you're ever in Lincolnshire or thinking of ordering a book from a local business, I heartily recommend the excellent Bookmark Bookshop in Spalding. It's a bookshop with coffee shop and reading rooms. Perfect.